- Associated Press - Friday, October 19, 2018

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Judy Murphy didn’t grow up wanting to become a nurse. But she reluctantly enrolled in the three-year program at City Hospital in 1965, for a total cost of about $471.

The program was essential to the hospital, the primary public one in south St. Louis for those who could not pay.

The work was demanding - at times, heartbreaking - and the strict 7 p.m. curfew imposed on the nurses belittling for women coming into their own. But Murphy said she found good reason to stick around: The endearing patients. Her tough-love supervisor. And, most of all, the other nurses-in-training she bonded with who became her “Dirty Dozen.”

City Hospital was shuttered in 1985 after 140 years of service; the nurses’ residence was demolished a year earlier.

But remnants of the hospital complex have come back to life in recent years. Some of the buildings now house a restaurant and an event space. The main building at 1515 Lafayette Avenue has been transformed into what is now the Georgian condominium complex, and it was there that Murphy, 73, and more than a dozen of the women and men who had laughed together, saved lives together and jumped fences together to escape the rigid curfew recently returned to revisit and reminisce about the place that had brought them together five decades earlier.

The 41 members of the class of 1968 were the last of the St. Louis City Hospital Training School for Nurses’ 1,663 graduates, which included 55 men, before the school at City Hospital merged with a school at Homer G. Phillips to become the Municipal School of Nursing. They were also first to graduate as nurse practitioners.

When Murphy first arrived at the hospital from her hometown of Artesia, New Mexico, she tried to make friends with the nurses’ den mother and infirmary director of then 34 years, Celia Walters, by name-dropping a mutual acquaintance.

Walters, who died in 1970 at age 75, was not someone to be trifled with.

“She grabbed me by the collar and said ‘Yes, but she was a really good gal, so you better live up to that,’” Murphy recalled in Marcella Petzchen’s condo at the Georgian. Petzchen, a fellow 1968 graduate of the nursing school, lives in a home that was once one of the hospital’s wards, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

The hospital had strict rules to keep nursing students prim and proper. The graduating class of 1968 broke most of them.

To get out of a 7 p.m. curfew on weekdays (10 p.m. on weekends), the nurses took advantage of an underground tunnel system connecting the buildings on the hospital campus. If the tunnels were shut before they were ready to go out, they jumped out windows and climbed the fences.

The Melody Bar was right across the street, with 10-cent beers. It wasn’t unusual to see a patient in a gown there drinking, the gang recalled.

After more than a dozen or so women were caught hopping the fence in one night, they had a sit-down with their supervisors.

“We were always in trouble,” Murphy said. “Eventually they realized they couldn’t keep us in very long and they changed the rules.”

Fifty years later, Murphy and her fellow nursing graduates can still remember their patients’ names and illnesses. Michele Legate remembers when she delivered a baby for the first and only time.

“My hands were shaking like crazy before I cut the umbilical cord,” she said. “I felt so proud afterward.”

The work could be heart-wrenching. Most of the patients at City Hospital, which was built to treat the indigent, were uninsured. Many were victims of shootings and violent crimes. Some would revisit the hospital frequently because they didn’t have access to medication otherwise.

Right after the students started class in 1965, a heat wave struck. The “no-frills” hospital had no air conditioning, just large fans. The nurses ran back and forth taking temperatures and covering patients in ice.

At one point, “every ward was lined with patients,” Donna Lumos recalled.

They didn’t realize it at the time, but the nurses-in-training - some of whom had never done any work in the medical field before - were basically the hospital’s staff. Because of the rotating medics, patients weren’t getting consistent care, and they turned to the nurse practitioners. It was a rigorous, hands-on learning experience.

“We were cheap help,” Petzchen said. “We were down in the trenches. We learned fast because that was what we had to do.”

After their training at City Hospital, the mere mention of the place landed the nurses jobs, they said. Many went on to supervise their own clinics. Several are still working as nurses today, including Petzchen, who visited a patient hours before the reunion this month.

Officials talked of closing the hospital years before it was finally shuttered.

The nursing school closed in 1979. For many of the nursing class of ‘68, the closure of the school had been rumored for so long that by the time it actually happened, it was no longer a shock.

The city’s health budget was rising. St. Louis decided to follow other cities across the nation in getting out of the hospital business.

After it was closed in 1985, the hospital fell into disrepair, with shrubs growing out of the main building’s roof. It escaped demolition in 2001 after it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Parts of it, like the main building, were renovated and repurposed. Other buildings were razed. Some remain to be developed.

While the hospital was no longer, the Dirty Dozen’s friendships endured.

Murphy couldn’t let the 50th anniversary of their 1968 graduation go unmarked. It was a daunting, emotional feat to track down all 41 members of her class, but in the end she only failed to find three of them.

She wrote out each of their life stories and put them in a packet for the reunion guests.

There was tragedy among the happy stories. Ten people from the graduating class had died, including Kathy Lohmeyer, close friend of Murphy and Petzchen.

Her daughter, Sarah Lohmeyer, now lives in the old hospital. Petzchen, her godmother, lives down the hall.

“My mom always said those were the best years of her life,” said Sarah Lohmeyer, who joined her late mother’s onetime classmates at the reunion. “I know so many of the people here without having met them because of her stories. And now everybody has come full circle.”

There were also stories of love. Two couples came out of the nursing class of 1968. Murphy met her now-husband when she was a student and he was a Washington University medical student working shifts at the hospital.

Diane Steiner, 71, turned around in her seat and her eyes welled with tears.

The last time she had seen Gloria Koehler, 72, was just before her graduation in 1968. Koehler was a bridesmaid in Steiner’s wedding. Steiner left the country weeks later, and when she returned in 1988 she settled in the east coast. The recent reunion was her first time back in St. Louis.

“I was just thinking about you last week,” said Koehler, who graduated in ‘69 and lives in St. Louis.

For more than an hour that night, they had sat next to each other without recognizing one another. Steiner, who sports a short haircut, used to have waist-long blond hair.

“It’s surreal,” Steiner said about the reunion. “But it feels like home.”


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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